STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Bamako, the city where a hostage situation is unfolding this morning, is the capital of Mali in West Africa. The city has a population of about 1.8 million, we're told. It has an upscale district of recent construction, which is where you can find a modern upscale hotel, the Radisson Blu. Today, gunmen walked into that hotel and took many hostages, about 170 by one count. And now we're told Mali's military has been trying to free them, moving, according to one description, floor by floor. People living in Bamako and living through this crisis include Niek de Goeij of Catholic Relief Services.
NIEK DE GOEIJ: Around the Radisson, there is a huge security force present at the moment. The neighborhood itself - you know, I was driving home, and it was almost like I was driving home on a Sunday afternoon, almost no traffic. You know, and I got home and I started making more phone calls. And then the daycare of my 2-year-old son called and said, please come pick him up because we're closing. We don't know what's going on exactly, so we don't want to keep the children here. So I had to go pick up my son and, you know, other schools have closed as well. So it's - you know, it's a situation where people are worried, you know? Is this it? How bad is it? How bad is the Radisson going to be and - or is there more that we should be expecting today or this weekend?
INSKEEP: In that interview earlier on this program, Mr. De Goeij said one other thing. He said he was not terribly surprised to experience a terrorist attack in Bamako. We're going to talk about that and other things with NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, who's reported for many years in West Africa, and she's on the line from London. Ofeibea, is this not particularly a surprise? Has Mali been that unstable?
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: It has since 2012 - started off with a coup d'etat against the then president, who was literally weeks from elections. They were going to vote in a new president. That was separatists who wanted their own homeland in the North - but very, very soon. It was Islamist groups - disparate Islamist groups - mainly linked to al-Qaida then who took control of the North and occupied it for almost 12 months until a French-led military operation managed to drive out these Islamists. Now, France is a former colonial power in Mali, and we're told that French troops again are part of the operation to try and free the hostages in Bamako.
INSKEEP: And Ofeibea, let's be careful to state that we do not know who the attackers are, but something is known about the Islamist groups in the country, like the Islamists who took over the North for a time that you mentioned. Have there been indications that those local Islamist groups are in any way connected with broader international groups like the Islamic State or al-Qaida?
QUIST-ARCTON: Al-Qaida, yes - that has been for a very long time. But we were told during the occupation of the North that even Boko Haram, Islamists from Nigeria who have now pledged allegiance to Islamic State, were part of those disparate groups that took control. So, Steve, it's really important to put it into context that it's Mali, yes, but the whole region is concerned about what is going on. These different groups, who were saying that Islam in this part of West Africa is lax, they want to impose strict Sharia law. They feel that Muslims are not true Muslims. They are the ones saying they're doing this in the name of Islam, although we don't know what exactly has happened in this hostage-taking incident in Bamako. So also, let me say that President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who is the president of Mali, was in France earlier this year supporting the French president after the Charlie Hebdo killings and the other killings in Paris. So everybody is mindful of what is going on in France now and what is going on throughout the whole region. But Mali is chronically insecure.
INSKEEP: OK in just about 20 seconds and with a grain of salt, remind us of the numbers you have - whatever figures you have about what is happening at that hotel right now.
QUIST-ARCTON: Three dead - about up to 80 people have been freed or have escaped but a big question mark still, Steve.
INSKEEP: OK, Ofeibea, thanks very much. That's NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reporting today from London, tracking the developments in Bamako, Mali. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.